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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Kyle McClellan looks for a return to 2008 this spring

Trying to make the St. Louis Cardinals rotation in 2010, Kyle McClellan’s results in his first two major league camps were dramatically different.

    On KTRS Radio 550’s Hot Stove show Thursday evening, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan discussed his winter preparation for the 2010 season. While the right-hander is preparing for the second consecutive winter to come to camp as a starter, the difference this time is that his fate of remaining in the rotation will be in his own hands.

    Kyle McClellan (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)One year ago, McClellan was the safety net for Chris Carpenter, whose status was somewhat uncertain as the ace was coming off various ailments, most recently nerve transposition surgery in his elbow in November 2008. This time around, the 25-year-old has to be considered the front-runner for the fifth spot in the rotation, vacated by unsigned John Smoltz and another now ex-Cardinal, Todd Wellemeyer.

    Though his four-pitch arsenal and two years of major league relief experience are clear assets, McClellan doesn’t yet own the job. His competitors will include veteran Rich Hill, as well as farm system prospects Jaime Garcia, P.J. Walters and perhaps Mitchell Boggs, all with a bit of MLB time themselves.

    In his radio spot, McClellan mentioned he took off 15 pounds over the winter and focused on increasing his lower body strength. He is among the first wave of arrivals in Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida, almost two weeks ahead of the mandatory reporting date, reports Joe Strauss in a Post-Dispatch blog entry.

    While trained in the minor leagues as a starter, McClellan’s elbow problems in 2005 and 2006 drove him into a relief role with Palm Beach then Springfield upon his return in 2007. He began with Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery followed by nerve transposition surgery the following season (a procedure done two years later on both Carpenter and Albert Pujols).

    Despite never having appeared above Double-A, a strong and surprising performance in 2008 spring training camp (1.38 ERA in 13 innings) opened the way for McClellan to make the major league squad. He never returned to the minor leagues.

    Perhaps it was the uncertainty of his role a year ago, but his spring 2009 performance was quite the opposite. In fact, I seriously wondered at the time if McClellan would have made the Cardinals opening day roster had he not sufficiently proven himself in his rookie season of 2008.

    Last spring, he had just one start and made eight other Florida appearances in relief. McClellan was hit hard and often for 17 earned runs on 23 hits and eight walks in 17 innings. The math worked out to a tidy, though unsightly 9.00 ERA. In his defense, McClellan’s March troubles did not follow him north for the regular season as he slipped back into his familiar relief role.

    We will see between now and the start of April if McClellan is able to follow the clear path in front of him and solidify that fifth spot in the Cardinals rotation. While we don’t yet know for sure what his personal Plan “B” will be, if McClellan doesn’t make the rotation, I suspect he will be returned to his regular set up assignment rather than remain a starter down in Triple-A Memphis.

    A year ago, I backed the idea of the Cardinals making the full commitment to McClellan starting. Assuming the major league pen is strong this spring, I would still be in favor of continuing to let him start. Since the Cardinals believe McClellan has starter’s stuff, then why wouldn’t the best long-term approach for everyone involved be to allow him more than a month of spring training to either prove or disprove it once and for all?

    If one of the top five in the Cardinals rotation go down during the first half, an experienced major leaguer could be ready to be promoted and step in. Worst case, even if the experiment is still not working after a dozen or so Triple-A starts, McClellan could always be returned to the major league pen, serving as a nice, low-cost boost for the stretch run.

    Yet I don’t think they would consider having him intern as a starter in the minors this year any more than they did last. Even if he is not an immediate success starting, based on past work, McClellan will most likely remain one of the best seven relievers in the eyes of Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. As such, his spot on the major league roster seems written in ink, even as his 2010 role remains open.

    In other words, while McClellan prefers to start, he may only have a month of play to prove he is up to the task.

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    Brian Walton

    Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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